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YORKVILLE — A new tool is being added to the Racine County Sheriff’s Office arsenal, one that can help get into any device like a cell phone or tablet.

The Racine County Board approved the purchase of Cellebrite on Tuesday through a grant from the Wisconsin Department of Justice for $11,500.

Supervisors Nick Demske and Fabi Maldonado were the only ones to vote against the resolution.

Some other board supervisors brought up concerns they have with the device and the process to approve it.

Lt. Cary Madrigal said having a Cellebrite device will help the department combat sex offenders and drug dealers by allowing investigators to download data from devices like cell phones and tablets.

“Years ago we would have to send it up to the crime lab and it would be six to eight weeks before we would get a response back,” Madrigal said. “Having these now at departments where we can physically download the items that are on your phone or tablet, obviously with those pieces of evidence we can close a case a lot sooner than later.”

Madrigal said a Cellebrite could also help with instances of texting while driving.

“We can download that phone… and we would be able to tell if that person was texting at the time of the crash,” Madrigal said. “There’s a lot of information that we can pull from these devices.”

When asked if the department needs to get a warrant, Madrigal said: “it depends.”

“We could have existent circumstances to search that phone (without a warrant), those are few and far between,” Madrigal said. “The majority (of circumstances), yes, you have to get a warrant.”

Concerns raised

The approval of the purchase was requested for first and second readings before the County Board, which is not common for Sheriff’s Office agenda items, however, Madrigal said the department needed to purchase the device and send the receipt to DOJ before the end of the month in order to get the funding.

Demske still took issue with the item being voted on so quickly.

“I have no doubt, and you made it clear right now, a device like this can be used for very important reasons and it could increase safety in our community,” Demske said. “The main concern is… I think this is a very important item on our agenda that I take with a lot of gravity and that I want to do as much due diligence on as I can, so not having first and second reading for that reason is uncomfortable for me.”

Demske also had questions about accountability with a device like this.

“I hear this from individuals; I hear this from organizations; I’ve heard it from other elected officials from other bodies and most surprisingly, I’ve heard it from a lot of other people in the criminal justice system,” Demske said. “I bring all of this up, this issue of accountability, it’s not something that I can prove or not if this is an issue with the Sheriff’s Department, what I know is I keep hearing it over and over and over again when I’m talking to people and organizations in my district.”

Supervisor Melissa Kaprelian said she has concerns about the possibility of this device being used on innocent people.

“I think the process itself can put someone in a very vulnerable position,” Kaprelian said. “That’s something that can change the course of somebody’s life even though they were innocent. So we have to keep that in mind also.”

In response, Madrigal said by allowing law enforcement access to a phone, an innocent person could use the device to prove their innocence.

“I wouldn’t want to open my phone to anyone here,” Madrigal said. “If someone accuses me of sending them something or taking a picture of something, you wouldn’t need a search warrant. I would be very apt to say ‘take it’… I look at it like if you are innocent what do you have to hide? Unless there are things on your phone that you don’t want people to see.”

Along with a warrant, Madrigal said the device would be housed with the detective bureau and only trained individuals would be able to use the Cellebrite.

“We’re treading around Fourth Amendment rights,” Supervisor Monte Osterman said, adding that his own research swayed him in favor of the device. “As long as our Sheriff’s Department acts responsibly there should not be an issue with using the device.”

Supervisor Robert Miller said the Sheriff’s Office should have the technology to match the criminals it’s fighting.

“Technology is pervasive, the bad guys have the technology,” Miller said. “I want to give them the tools to be able to protect us and I think our Sheriff’s Department follows the rules, follows the law, and I hope that this board can be supportive of that department.”

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Reporter

Ricardo Torres covers federal, state and Racine County politics along with the Village of Mount Pleasant. He bleeds Wisconsin sports teams.

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